What are designated ‘Bathing Waters’?
The UK has over 600 designated Bathing Waters – sites that are popular for swimming and paddling and have been designated under the Bathing Water Regulations 2013. They have been put in place thanks to the EU Bathing Waters Directive that was first introduced in 1976. UK designated Bathing Waters are mostly coastal, with only 16 lakes and no rivers.
How are Bathing Waters monitored?
Water Quality standards have been set for Bathing Waters based on World Health Organisation research into the incidence of stomach upsets in people bathing in waters with different levels of bacteria. Water is tested for two types of bacteria, E. coli and intestinal enterococci. These bacteria usually get into water from sewage and animal manure. Tests are carried out regularly, usually weekly, by government environmental agencies between 15 May and 30 September in England and Wales, and 1 June and 15 September in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Bathing Waters are categorised as ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘sufficient’ or ‘poor’ on the basis of bacteria levels. Sites are rated annually, and on a short term basis in response to temporary pollution. By law, the local council must display information, online and on signs at Bathing Waters, about water quality and pollution sources during the bathing season. If there is a temporary pollution incident they must explain the nature of the problem and how long it’s likely to last.
If a Bathing Water is classified as ‘poor’, an ‘advice against bathing’ symbol must be put up on site and online, along with information about pollution sources and what action is being taken to clean it up. This doesn’t mean you can’t swim – the sites remain open – but there might be an increased risk of getting ill.
Where to get more information
Government Agency websites provide the monitoring data and ‘Bathing Water profiles’ that give information about other issues such as litter and blue-green algae:
• Northern Ireland
Surfers Against Sewage’s fantastic Safer Seas Service gives real-time water quality alerts for over 350 beaches in the UK (and the River Dee at Chester). It also provides surf and tide conditions and other information such as dog restrictions, facilities and lifeguard services.
Blue Flag beaches are usually resort beaches with plenty of facilities which meet stringent criteria. As well as having excellent water quality they also have to provide environmental information, lifeguards, toilets and other management.
Why do designated Bathing Waters matter?
Designated Bathing Waters are the only places in the UK where bacteria levels in open water are monitored and the data published. Bacteria are the pollutants that pose the greatest risk to swimmers’ health, so this information is really useful to help swimmers avoid pollution and make informed choices about where and when to swim.
Bathing Water designations have also been hugely important in helping to clean up popular swimming spots, particularly as a result of detailed monitoring and targets being set for improvements. The UK was slow to designate Bathing Waters at first, identifying only 27 sites when the EU first introduced them in 1970s, compared to an average of 285 in other EU countries. In 1980s, under pressure from Europe, the UK finally designated 362 more sites. But monitoring at these sites showed that water quality was pretty terrible: 45% were classified as ‘poor’. The problem could no longer be ignored.
A huge amount of hard work and investment from Government, environmental organisations, water companies, farmers and local communities has resulted in a massive improvement. In 2019 98.3% of Bathing Waters in England met minimum standards, 71.4% were classified as excellent and only 1.7% were classified as poor. Wales does even better, though Scotland and Northern Ireland are worse.
Bathing water quality in all UK nations (2018 figures, government agency sources)
England 67% excellent, 25% good, 6% sufficient, 2% poor
Wales 78% excellent, 21% good, 5% sufficient, 0% poor
Scotland 32% excellent, 41% good, 15% sufficient, 12% poor
Northern Ireland 59% excellent, 26% good, 15% sufficient, 0% poor
Doing well but could do much better!
Despite dramatic improvements since the 1970s, things could still be much better. The UK lags behind most European countries in terms of water quality: ranking 24th out of the 30 countries that designate and monitor Bathing Waters.
The UK also compares poorly in terms of number and type of designated Bathing Waters, with few inland waters and only one river so far. Most other European countries have designated large numbers of freshwater sites:
• Netherlands – 33 rivers and 668 lakes
• Germany – 38 rivers and 2021 lakes
• Italy – 73 rivers, 822 lakes
• France – 573 rivers, 1059 lakes
This lack of designation for inland waters matters. Firstly, there is no monitoring of bacteria or provision of information to help swimmers avoid pollution (though there are some ways to tell where to avoid and Is It Clean?). Secondly, there is not the same pressure on water companies and others to reduce pollution. Thirdly, although outdoor swimming is now widely accepted and celebrated, the lack of designated inland sites perhaps reflects a lingering cultural and institutional nervousness about encouraging swimming in fresh water. Designation shows an official recognition of somewhere as a suitable swimming spot.
In view of the benefits of Bathing Water designation, many are welcoming the successful application to designate the UK’s first river Bathing Water on the River Wharfe at Ilkley in Yorkshire. On 22 December 2020 this became the first designated bathing site river in the UK, with water quality monitoring to begin in May 2021. The Ilkley Clean River Campaign worked hard to put together the bid, including counting the numbers of people paddling and swimming in the river over summer 2019 to prove that it is sufficiently popular to be designated, and doing citizen testing to refine the details of their bid. They had the support of local councils and other organisations, as well as popular support locally – all important factors in such a campaign.
The Environment Agency has welcomed increased public interest as it could boost efforts to improve water quality, though stressed that this will need funding to enable proper monitoring of the water and improved quality.
Swimmers need to consider many factors before setting up campaigns to get bathing water designation for local swim spots.
As for the future, it is unclear whether there will be changes after Brexit to Bathing Water designations and monitoring (and to other related environmental standards under the Water Framework Directive), and whether, without pressure from Europe, water quality continues to improve or whether we return to being the “dirty man of Europe”.